Texas Conference Draws Transportation Heavy-Hitters

Wokers along stretch of highway at US290/US 183 April 2011
Wokers along stretch of highway at US290/US 183 April 2011

A who’s who of transportation policy wonks, lawmakers and engineers will descend on Irving in August for the 15th Annual Transportation & Infrastructure Summit.

The event, which is always held in Irving, has evolved from humble origins into one of the most respected gatherings in the country focused on transportation policy. Keynote guests this year include former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez.

Plenty of Texas officials will also attend including Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Phil Wilson and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

State Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, chair of the House Transportation Committee, plans to convene a meeting of a recently created subcommittee on transit to take place at the Summit, his office confirmed.

David Dean, a Summit organizer and former Texas Secretary of State, said the first conference in 1997 was originally called the Texas Transportation Summit and lasted only four hours. It was put together at the request of U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, the highest-ranking Texan on the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, as a way to bring together federal and local officials to talk transportation policy.

“It wasn’t designed to be an annual anything,” Dean said. “We focused on policy as opposed to engineering and technical. The primary focus was highways.”

The feedback to that first meeting was so positive that organizers planned another get-together the next year. It soon expanded from four hours to a full day, then to a day and a half. The event is now a tightly-packed four-day conference. It regularly draws more than 1,000 attendees.

Dean said organizers eventually dropped the word "Texas" from the name because attendees from other states told them it would be easier to expense the trip to employers if it sounded like a wide-reaching event tackling national transportation issues, which is what it what it has become.

“It’s become perhaps the most robust and most broad-covered policy summit in the country,” Dean said. “We’re lucky it’s in Texas and Irving has been a very faithful and committed primary host to it.”

Given the recent drama in Congress over passing a long-term transportation funding bill, the future of paying for new roads and transit systems will be a major focus of the event.

The change in the mentality of attendees regarding transportation funding since that first summit has been striking, Dean said.

“Back in the salad days, when money was flowing, you’d kind of take a number and get in line and you’d assume at some point your project would be funded,” Dean said. “Fifteen years ago, people were still thinking you could raise gas taxes.”

Now public-private partnerships and toll roads draw more serious interest and few see a gas tax increase as politically possible, he said.

Other hot issues this year are likely to include the impact of the upcoming Panama Canal expansion on the country’s ports and the future of high-speed rail.